Finding faith, feeling alive: Moorhead woman launches positive battle after cancer diagnosis

One look at her blog and you know just how much credence Vicky Westra gives the cancer that has taken up residence in her body. "Find Joy in the Journey Now," "All Shall Be Well" and "Choose Joy" are themes pervading the Moorhead woman's home pag...

One look at her blog and you know just how much credence Vicky Westra gives the cancer that has taken up residence in her body.

"Find Joy in the Journey Now," "All Shall Be Well" and "Choose Joy" are themes pervading the Moorhead woman's home page; reminders that we all have a choice to make about how to live life, no matter our circumstances.

Westra sees serendipity in the word she chose as her life's theme following her father's death in July 2010 - Alive - just eight months before a mammogram reading of her own that dramatically changed life's course.

"Even then, I was already looking for the thing that was going to propel me into feeling alive and finding that purpose," she says. "In a way I got what I asked for. It just didn't come in a way I'd anticipated."

After all, what mother of two vivacious, hockey-playing boys, ages 9 and 11, would choose cancer as the way to feel more alive? Yet confronting her illness is exactly how Westra came to understand what living is really about.

She remembers the moment it happened. It was March 16, 2011, the day the pathologist confirmed the daunting suspicion: Stage 3 Breast Cancer of an aggressive, invasive variety.

"Things were moving so fast at that point that I found myself praying on top of the dirty clothes in the basement in the laundry room - on my knees. And when that wasn't even close enough - I felt like my heart needed to be grounded - I went prone on the floor," Westra recalls. "Call me crazy but I think God met me right there on that spot. When I got up from praying, I felt so released of all that energy and I was able to breathe again. I could get up and go, 'Okay, now I'm going to do the laundry.'"

In that moment, the good little girl Westra had been all her life - the one who'd done everything to prevent something as ugly as cancer - turned real.

Faith can be messy

The awakening immediately introduced a profundity of faith. Westra went from attending weekly church services and reciting bedtime prayers to being in a sometimes minute-by-minute conversation with God.

"It's a tender relationship I have with my Father now. I talk to him all day long. I'm finally getting it but I'd never really experienced it before this."

She also came to realize how vast faith can be. "Faith is not tidy. Faith is not neat. It's messy. It's hard. It can't be contained. It's big and that's really what happened. It grew exponentially because I had to really start digging deep."

The contributing influences of people in her life cannot be discounted. Take her father Willard - a carpenter from rural New Salem, N.D. Even in his final years, when he was attached daily to a bulky air-purifying machine, he made the most of every day, venturing out as often as possible to visit his hometown.

"He would be just as spry and bright as can be. You'd see this light in his eyes because that was his favorite thing - going home," Westra says. "He was going to 'talk farm,' and visit the church he loved and all the people there."

And he was well-received, in part because he was an expert storyteller who could rattle off the history of every piece of farm equipment and building and piece of land within sight.

Through her blog, The Westra World, one quickly discovers Westra's own adeptness at weaving a poignant verbal yarn, though she'd likely credit her good blogging friend Sara - Gitzen Girl as she's known in the online world - with encouraging her passion.

Sara, a former magazine writer, died in September from ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, an oftentimes fatal disease that can lead to severe, chronic pain and discomfort. Before her death, Sara inspired Westra through her frequent doses of positivity amidst suffering.

"She was daily losing her ability to be in this world and yet her spirit just grew stronger and stronger, and her faith deeper and deeper," Westra says. "When I told her I was dropping to my knees, she said, 'I couldn't have told you to do it any better. What you do is empty your heart of grief and sorrow so you can fill back up with joy.'"

The local community also has played a vital role helping Westra push through. Fund-raising benefits, assistance with her boys and frequent gifts of encouragement have sprinkled her post-diagnosis life.

Live your legacy

It's true that cancer can destroy some things but not all. Since her diagnosis, she's watched her sons, Nolan and Colton, acquire a depth of compassion abnormal for their ages.

"I am trying to teach them to leave their hearts open and to delight in the small things around them as much as my Dad did," Westra says. "If I can teach them the lessons it's taken me years to learn, in a bite-sized way, then I feel like I am laying a solid foundation for them."

Her husband, Rick, sees her ability to affect others positively as a natural quality that has only expanded in recent months.

"She's always given of herself in so many ways to both the kids and to me, but now that's been magnified," he says.

When cancer enters a family's home, life quickly becomes a series of doctor appointments comprising all varieties of tests, scans and surgeries. The demands have been no less so at the Westra household.

"(Cancer) doesn't let you sit still very long," Rick says. "You're constantly making mental adjustments as it throws you into this battle."

But where some would retreat, not so his wife. Rather, he's observed an unusual resiliency in her.

Blogging has been an important component, allowing her a fitting forum in which to release and share experiences and connect with people from around the world.

"She's always been a very gifted writer but she never felt like it was the right time for her to share her thoughts or to put her writing out there," Rick explains. "The blog was a beginning place to test her ability to write, and I think cancer put her in the position where she's truly doing what she's meant to do."

Perhaps the best part about what she offers to others, according to Rick, is her authenticity. "The person she is when you meet her is the same person she is when she's home with me," he says. "She's a very genuine person who wants to share in life's journey, so to speak, loving every day and the experiences along the way."

Despite dealing with an unwelcomed intruder, both have been able to approach the cancer with a grateful outlook, particularly toward those who have guided them through the first, difficult steps. "You come to realize this affects an enormous amount of people," Rick says. "At Roger Maris there aren't many empty chairs. You're definitely not alone."

Westra says she feels blessed to still have her hair and other physical attributes, in part due to "a compassionate use of chemo" - the result of a study drug being administered in lighter doses over a longer period of time to keep the mobile cancer in line.

And though she's embraced the "Fight like a Girl" theme, she's not in warring mode. "Whenever we think we're going to do battle with something, it rises up all that much stronger," she says, committing herself to not giving the cancer undeserved energy.

But above all she wants others to know that suffering doesn't have to stop anyone from living.

"You might not get breast cancer. You might have a divorce or a death in the family," she says. "Whatever that hard thing is that's messy and feels like there's no way can you possibly do it, if I can, you can."

Falling back again to her father's influence, Westra recalls the teaching he modeled best through his life.

"How do you want to be remembered?" she asks. "Live like that. Live your legacy now, with intention and purpose."

Roxane B. Salonen works as a freelance writer and children's author in Fargo. She blogs on family life at http://peacegardenmama.areavoices.com